Megyn Kelly’s much publicized confrontation with Alex Jones has the potential to offer insight into a crucial — and, as yet, not fully explained — aspect of the electoral victory of Donald Trump last November. No, not Russia. But the right-wing media ecosystem without which he could not have prevailed.
The complexity of that ecosystem arises from its operation in two registers simultaneously. It has an outward face, whereby Trump’s issues are translated into a language that is intelligible to the body politic at large via the mainstream media. And it has its echo chamber, in which a coded mix of hobby horses, conspiracy theories, fake news and dog whistles circulate, creating a tribal loyalty among the already committed.
At the most accessible end of this ecosystem stands Fox News Channel and Donald Trump’s Twitter feed. Along the spectrum we find Rush Limbaugh and the other titans of conservative talk radio, Sinclair’s local TV news operation, online powerhouses like Drudge and Breitbart and wannabes like Newsmax, and lecture circuit fixtures Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos. And at the extreme we find Alex Jones of InfoWars, denouncer of yogurt and denier of gun massacres. Yet even as Jones lurks in the most outré of right-wing media circles, he still has the ear of a sitting president.
In March, CBS’ 60 Minutes took a stab at deciphering this ecosystem for a general audience in a report entitled “Fake News.” Scott Pelley used the example of Pizzagate: the fictitious child sex ring that was concocted from the hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee posted on Wikileaks. Pelley demonstrated how robots can be deployed to propagate such libelous fantasies, so that they end up as part of the general circulation in social media networks.
Pelley’s explanation confined itself to the technological — not the ideological. Jones, who is described by his own lawyer as a performance artist, not a journalist, and Kelly, with her years of experience as an anchor in FNC’s opinion-oriented primetime, are perfectly placed to explore the ideological mechanism by which some conspiracy fantasies remain subterranean in the right-wing echo chamber, and others emerge as journalistically backed talking points on outlets such as Fox & Friends.
Sunlight, as the cliche goes, is the best disinfectant. If Kelly uses her interview with Jones to go beyond technology, and to shine light on the ideology of the media ecosystem that was crucial to Donald Trump’s election, then Sunday Night, NBC’s 60 Minutes rival, will have done the body politic a great service.
The contrasting cliche to the disinfection of sunlight is the oxygen of publicity. Interviews on primetime network television do not happen because the subject is interested in spilling his secrets for the benefit of the body politic. On the contrary, they are transactional: the result of a delicate dance between the subject’s public relations team and the television anchor’s bookers.
Everybody knows that Caitlyn Jenner did not sit down with Diane Sawyer because she wanted to bare her transgender soul. No, she had a book to sell. The soul baring was the price of publicity; the publicity was the reward for the baring. That is the media ecosystem of primetime magazine programs and celebrity network anchors. When we see Jones sit down with Kelly, we all expect a transaction rather than an arm’s length confrontation. Kelly wants the controversy and the ratings. Jones wants prestige and publicity. The genre of primetime magazine programing leads us to expect elevation of Jones, not his contextualization.
This expectation is only reinforced by this photo posted in advance of Sunday’s airing: interviewer and interviewee, in sunglasses, mugging together for the camera. The photograph amounted to a visual promise that Kelly and Jones would be as chummy as she had been with stalked sportscaster Erin Andrews the previous week (publicized with photography of a similar tone).
When the bankers at JP Morgan decided to suspend their advertising on NBC News until after Sunday Night had aired its Jones report, it was a sign that Kelly, newly arrived at NBC from the decidedly less mainstream FNC, still has to prove her journalistic credibility outside that conservative niche.
By contrast, when Pelley profiled Mike Cernovich for his “Fake News” story, advertisers afforded 60 Minutes the benefit of the doubt. The show’s track record of credibility and independence meant that there was no knee-jerk assumption that Pelley would provide a promotional platform for Cernovich’s operation. Instead, it was assumed that Pelley would scrutinize the phenomenon rather than publicize it.
Kelly still has to build such a track record. So Sunday’s report will be important for her career not only on its own terms but also as a marker for the future. Will Kelly’s relationship to Jones be skeptical and challenging? Or transactional and complicit? Will she situate the role of his InfoWars in an overall ideological ecosystem? Or will she sensationalize and decontextualize?
If she provides information and explanation — in other words proper journalism — she will have earned the right to the benefit of the doubt the next time she takes on a toxic topic: that she will deliver disinfection rather than oxygen.
Andrew Tyndall is an independent news analyst and publisher of the Tyndall Report.